A Year in the Hype

Can 'Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life' Live Up to Expectations?

by Ashley K. Petkovski

22 November 2016

Where they lead, we will follow… but what'll we find when we get there?
Lorelai and Rory's "sneakily feminist" eating habits. 
cover art

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life

Cast: Lauren Graham, Alexis Bledel, Scott Patterson

(Netflix)

To call Netflix’s Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life “much anticipated” is akin to saying matriarch Emily Gilmore (Emily Bishop) is “a little tough” on her maids. Gracing screens across the US over theThanksgiving holiday, the four-episode revival is easily the biggest event of the Fall TV season. No one knows this better than Netflix, which has been over-caffeinating the buzz around Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life since its official announcement last October, tempting fans with everything from Instagram pics, script previews, and a series of pop-up Luke’s Diners across North America.

If the two-hour (plus) lines at faux Luke’s are anything to go by, audiences are gleefully lapping up all things Gilmore, and only getting thirstier. There’s a distinct difference in the excitement surrounding the beloved drama’s resurgence than that of, say, last winter’s Full House reboot. This time, there’s no schadenfreude, no mediated expectations. Instead, there’s a palatable feeling that Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life will do justice to its predecessor, will grow up right and make the Gilmore family proud. The initial reviews have already started pouring in, and they’re by and large glowing. Yet given the shaky track record of revivals and reboots—and the questionable trailers we’ve seen from the show— is it realistic to expect that Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life can actually deliver?

After more than year of small sips, we finally got our first real taste of the new series when the official trailer (below) released last month. As views racked up, the response was—pun intended—lukewarm at best. Some fans wept at the second coming, others complained it felt “off”; even more refrained from judging six hours of TV by a two-minute trailer. Whatever one’s take, though, being transported to a Stars Hollow that was at once old and new was a strange experience, and not just because Emily was wearing a T-shirt.

The reboot’s trailer made one thing clear: Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life is all about change. It’s a scary prospect, especially for a show with such a particular worldview and such a nostalgic appeal. Gilmore Girls is “comfort TV”, a warm, dependable, life-affirming blanket spun from clever references, relatable stories, strong women, and small-town charm. Pull the wrong way on any of those threads and the whole thing falls apart, something fans already witnessed when creator Amy Sherman-Palladino left the show before the infamous seventh season (aka, Gilmore Girls: Seek and Destroy).

That’s why the fate of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life will depend entirely on how it’ll negotiate the balance between preserving its original identity and telling new stories, between moving forward and staying the same. If the revival delivers on two key Gilmore non-negotiables, we just might see lighting strike Stars Hollow twice.

What Will They Say?

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life needs to rebuild the cocoon of Stars Hollow (and our trust in the series) by sounding like Stars Hollow. Gilmore Girls built its identity on a foundation of intertextuality, a near-constant stream of verbal and visual references that both informed the feeling of the show, and revealed its characters, values, and ideas. By speaking in what Bustle writer Caitlin Gallagher called “utterly outdated and wacky references”, Gilmore Girls used a blend of high and low culture, of alienation and inclusion to inform and attract audiences in a way no show has done since The Simpsons. The constant name-dropping, delivered with a precise tone and perspective (often more scathing than we remember), made the Gilmores smarter, worldier, and quirkier than the competition. In less capable hands, the citizens of Stars Hollow could have been detestable snobs. Instead, the careful mix of references made the Girls both approachable and admirable; the sheer volume of namedrops at once reassuring us that we wouldn’t always get the joke, and rewarding us when we did.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life needs to nail this careful use of references to protect the identity of the show, to make Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life feel like Gilmore Girls. What we’ve seen so far, however, is rightfully making some fans nervous. Remember when Rory once called Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale a classic couple in a show where Old Hollywood was always the blueprint for romance? It was about as awkward and off-brand as that time Rory wore a powder blue turtleneck sweater to a Distillers concert… or that time Rory went to a Distillers concert. Any time Gilmore Girls tried to be too contemporary, too popular, too marketable, or even too alternative, it destabilized that warm and fuzzy, yet intimidatingly, hip Stars Hollow feeling.

That’s why Netflix’s very first reveal of Lauren Graham (Lorelai Gilmore) and Alexis Bledel (Rory Gilmore) back in character was wonderfully familiar and kind of funny, but all kinds of blue turtleneck wrong. They look like our girls, scarfing Pop-Tarts in their underutilized kitchen, but they sound like overwhelmed male network execs desperately trying to remind us of how feminist-y and zeitgeist-y the original series was by namedropping Google and Amy Schumer (and, let’s not forget, ruining the clip’s only tonally appropriate reference by having Lorelai question whether John Oliver would find her hot).

Like International Grab Bag Night at Al’s Pancake World, the clip set us up for disappointment. So, when the official trailer gave us nothing meatier than Ben Affleck, Tori Spelling, and Jack Kerouac in a show that used to give us Grey Gardens, XTC, and strolling down Swann’s Way, it still fell short of delivering the classic Gilmore tone. The bite and the punch are there—if you need convincing, check out the first page of the first scene—but Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life needs to avoid being too topical, too current, and too desperate to remind us that it’s 2016 if it wants to recapture that old Stars Hollow magic.

What Will They Eat?

In a September interview with Entertainment Weekly, Graham called Gilmore Girls “sneakily feminist”. Although the actress was commenting on the “Which boyfriend will Rory choose” dilemma, the show’s subtle (and not-so-subtle) pro-women messages informed nearly every detail of Stars Hollow life. At its best, Gilmore Girls was a respite from traditional gender norms, audiences could escape to where reading was sexy, women were the boss, and dessert was always on the menu. That’s why staying true to the show’s integral feminist identity won’t depend on the Gilmore Girls’ relationships with men, but rather on their all-important relationship with pie.

Anyone familiar with the show knows the Gilmore universe is synonymous with comfort food, usually presented in “smorgasbordian” quantities. Seeing women celebrate food, eat with abandon, and never, ever discuss their bodies (regardless of the size of those bodies), was revolutionary stuff. Then again, the early ‘00s were a simpler time for our palates. We hadn’t yet become intolerant of anything not sold at Whole Foods, and movie popcorn and pie were “sometimes foods” as opposed to the harbingers of all human suffering that they are today. Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life will be eating in a culture where Mrs. Kim’s (Emily Kuroda) tofu salad can make her a bankable food blogger, and the relationship between women, food, and bodies is more volatile than ever. That’s exactly why the Gilmores need to eat like it’s 2003 all over again.

Seeing skinny, sexy women eat so many verboten foods without a trace of reticence remains a revelation; it’s sneakily feminist feminism in its finest form. By making its heroines marathon eaters, Gilmore Girls forced us to watch women commit the incredibly rare act of consuming something other than salad, and no one was allowed to guilt them, judge them, or deny them their hunger. Their critics—mostly diner owner Luke Danes (Scott Patterson)—never won. No one was allowed to shame a Gilmore Girl for ordering fries. The show pushed the boundaries of what was considered acceptable televised female behaviour, transgressing and utterly destroying the good food equals good body equals good person equation that has become such a defining part of how we think about women in 2016.

Nor did this stereotype-shattering stop with the Gilmores. Women in Stars Hollow came in all shapes and sizes, but not one female character had body issues or derived worth from food choices or clothing size. Although the show’s plus-sized characters didn’t dine with the same abandon (partly to avoid fat-shaming stereotypes, and partly because smaller bodies could get away with a bigger point), their bodies were still allowed to be “good”. They were allowed to feel love, be loved, be sexy, eat, love food, have friends, be successful, enjoy life, and even wear the exact same clothes as their straight friends—all without the caveat of hating their bodies or “working on themselves” to earn camera time, like we’d see Sookie St. James portrayer Melissa McCarthy do on her problematic post-Gilmore series, Mike and Molly.

Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life can be a desperately needed pie in the face to our toxic, non-toxic food culture, once again becoming the only show breaking down the prejudices about how women should behave and how we should think about our bodies. Judging by the trailer and script preview, Sherman-Palladino clearly has something to say about the “Goop”-ification of today’s eating habits. So far, it smells promising, but if one of the changes Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life makes is to the Girls’ legendary appetites, Gilmore Girls will become just another show that punishes women for not eating their kale, undoing seven seasons of sneakily feminist feminism and leaving a bad taste in the mouths of the thousands of viewers who will be tuning in with Thanksgiving leftovers and, obviously, another slice of pie. 

Until then, the Gilmore Girls revival will continue to tease us, toy with our expectations, make us nervous, and ultimately make us unbearably excited for its return. Come 25 November, we’ll all have a different take on the events of the show—Not enough Paris (Lisa Weil)! Too much April (Vanessa Marano)! What’s up with Kirk’s (Sean Gunn) beard?—but the only thing that really matters, that’ll really make or break the audience’s nostalgia-filled hearts, is whether Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life will remain true to what defined our favourite little corner of the world.

Then again, even if the reboot throws the entire series under the bus, there’s still one comfort we can fall back on: Unless Netflix finds a way to cast Ray Romano as Lorelai’s new love interest at the last minute, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life will at least never be as brutally unrewarding as Parenthood.

Ashley K. Petkovski is a Toronto-based writer. She can be found yelling at the TV on her blog, Bad Bangs Club.

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